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TIFF 2021: Petite Maman is a Mother-Daughter Tale Full of Quiet Beauty

In 2019, the French filmmaker Céline Sciamma directed Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a quiet and understated lesbian period romance that burned through the awards circuit, winning two prizes at Cannes, before getting a well-received release around the world. Starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, the film featured one woman hired to paint a portrait of another, leading to a tragic but doomed romance set in a gorgeous 18th-century French estate (and, very memorably, on the adjacent beach.)

Now, Sciamma has returned with her follow-up to Portrait, Petite Maman, which debuted in the spring at the Berlin International Film Festival, and showed Friday night on the first night of the Toronto International Film Festival. 

It’s not nearly as exhilarating as Portrait was, but Petite Maman is a quieter, even more, understated drama, one that’s probably just as likely to make you cry. This is definitely a movie that sneaks up on you, but that’s not to say it’s not formally inventive, or beautiful to look at.

Petite Maman (2021)
Image: Canal+

Petite Maman, which is short and sweet at just 72 minutes, tells the story of Nelly (Josephine Sanz), an 8-year-old girl whose grandmother has recently died of painful bone disease. Visiting the grandmother’s longtime home, where her mother had grown up, Nelly spends her days wandering around the house and the woods outside. 

Soon she discovers another girl about her age (Gabrielle Sanz, the other actress’ sister, and possibly her twin) who, we soon discover, is a young version of her own mother, magically brought to her for some possibly inter-dimensional bonding. 

It’s a fantastic conceit and one that’s brought vividly to life through Sciamma’s direction. Once again using nearly no musical score at all — aside from a song that pops up near the end —and using a single house and its surrounding area as a distinct location, Sciamma tells a small story very well, even as we figure out early on that it’s heading to a specific, heartbreaking place. She’s also working once again with cinematographer Claire Mathon and production designer Lionel Brison.

Petite Maman (2021)
Image: Canal+

NEON has the rights to Petite Maman in North America, as it did for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, although it’s unclear when it’s getting a general release. Whenever it does arrive, it’s worth a look at this lovely drama about family and the strictures of the generations.

The 46th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, taking place September 9–18, is tailored to fit the moment, with physical screenings and drive-ins, digital screenings, virtual red carpets, press conferences, and industry talks. Find all our coverage here.

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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